Arts & Culture: Diversity Dialogue

Cultural Diversity and Inclusion in the Arts in New York State’s Southern Tier

Creative Process

Marluwalk wondered how the creative process worked for other artists, what inspired them, and what places allowed them to be creative. (See PLACES, January 28, 2010).

I know many artists who struggle with inspiration and procrastination and others who
cannot pass an hour without making a visual mark on something. One painter I know of only releases her paintbrush when she goes on vacation from painting and even then, once she reaches her destination, she searches out brushes and paints, like addicts search out whatever soothes their addictions.

More often, the artist schedules time in the studio as though it is a job, which it is. If the
studio is out of the house, all the easier to go to work. Many artists also have a concentrated focus. They work with one or two media and focus on three or four subjects: landscapes, portraits and still lives in watercolor, oil or acrylics. They become experts in their media and subject matter and go into the studio with a predetermined focus.

I’m not any of these people, though at times I am all of them. I work in watercolor for botanicals, oil for landscapes, oil or acrylic or pastels for figures, pen and ink, graphite….I like processes: intaglio and other printmaking techniques I have not yet learned. Encaustics. I make paste papers. I love fabrics and yarns. I make costumes and masks with sewing machines and paper maché. I like to walk into my studio and be inspired by whatever is on the shelves. If I did the same type of artwork consistently, my vision would become too narrow to be inspiring. So I am not turning out masterpieces. I experiment, all the time and want to try everything.

Conversely, I can also be a purist. My botanicals are watercolor, Not watercolor with colored pencil or ink or graphite. Watercolor, with every stamen, and lenticels in their proper places. However, my collages are with the mind that everything and anything goes. Landscapes in oil? Why yes, let’s make the sky green, because we can.

Place and Process
A good studio allows for inspiration, creativity and ease of working. I am just moving my studio into the former formal living room that sat vacant most days of the year. Instead of having to move boxes aside and go up the cold staircase to the studio room over the garage, I can be in the main house and reach for whatever I need. I’m in heaven. The poor studio spaces I have had all my life were stifling attic rooms, though my last did have a skylight and running water which was wonderful. “If you really want to paint you can do that anywhere. The studio shouldn’t make a difference”, I’ve been told. Ah, but it does. The light, the view, the pleasantness of the room, the temperature, the convenience– all do make a difference.

All this studio talk is moot when I am sketching en plein air or traveling. Give me a sketchbook (one that I have made with my paste papers and favorite grounds) and a sandwich bag holding a few tools, and I will draw anywhere. In the woods, in restaurants, waiting rooms; Indeed, traveling and being outdoors are two examples of where I am never at a loss for what to draw or the time to do it. Standing, sitting on a rock, anywhere and I’m happy and inspired.

Back to the studio and serious painting. I sigh just thinking of it. The following holds true whether I have commissioned work or am working on a piece for exhibition. For this example, I am referring to the steps I go through for my established career work, not my art playtime. I refer to my process of producing a scientific or natural history illustration.

First there is figuring out what to do. This step is partly accomplished with a commissioned piece. “I want to show a laboratory rodent with the portal vein cannulated.” Okay that’s easy. Or the life cycle of a fern. If I haven’t a commission, then the first step is,thinking, “ What the heck do I want to do and why? What will I prove? What will I show? Of what use is this to anyone? What will I learn? Is it important? Has this drawing been done before? What’s the purpose? I wonder what’s on TV. “

Then I look at books and start the research. I compile much more research than I will eventually use, like working a term paper. Collect, collect, collect. Ideas, techniques. Once I get into the research, after deciding I have a decent idea, I am happy. I love learning about my subject and could write a thesis on what I’m studying.

Once the research is under control, I begin the sketches, working on understanding the subject, making sure all aspects are scientifically accurate, and thinking about composition. This phase is fraught with conflicts and frustrations and I visit the refrigerator frequently. Eventually it’s under control and I can transfer the drawing to its final resting place (watercolor paper or board) and begin the painting. If I’ve done all the prep work sufficiently well, the painting is only a matter of technique. The music is on and I am painting, oblivious to time. Every few hours, or minutes depending on how the work is progressing, I stand up and move away from the drawing table so I can see the progress and catch any problems early on.

This is how I work. Undisciplined with productivity and regular scheduling, focused when I need to be. Everything I do contributes to my artful self—walking in the woods, visiting museums, socializing, attending lectures, going to concerts, dancing. All is integrated, even if you will never see it on a canvas.

To prove that I really do get some work done, my website is:


About ghalpert

Gretchen Halpert is a scientific illustrator living in New York's southern Finger Lakes

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This entry was posted on February 24, 2010 by and tagged , , .
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